Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Troubling Conversation About Human Rights

On 11 September, I went to an interesting talk hosted by UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute.  The topic was “Blood, Sweat & Tears: life on the front lines of the human rights struggle in Russia, Nigeria, and Iran”.  The two panelists were Wole Soyinka, fabled Nigerian author and advocate, and Azar Nafisi, an Iranian author and activist.  Both panelists have spoken out at great personal risk, and lend eloquence and feeling to human rights movements in their respective countries and globally.
Human rights debates matter, as the President prepares for a new war in Iraq

The panel was moderated by Michelle Tusan, an historian of the British Empire whose work focusses on the relationship between humanitarianism and imperialism in the context of British visions of the Middle East.  Tusan’s questions brought up developments in Iran, Ukraine, Nigeria, and other crisis spots around the world, and Soyinka and Nafisi alike provided passionate commentary on events.

But there were some troubling trajectories to the otherwise-interesting conversation.  Former UNLV President Carol Harter opened the event, and invoked the emotional events of 9/11, thirteen years ago to the day.  Both Harter and the panelists repeatedly described those who commit “savage” atrocities as “barbaric”, and their actions as unthinkable if not unexplainable, using similarly emotive if imprecise language. 

This language and approach to attacking injustice is common (goodness knows I’m guilty at times in spite of my best efforts), but deeply problematic.  It is an emotional vocabulary, to my view of the kind that led to our toxic responses to 9/11 and similarly spasmodic responses to troubles elsewhere in the world, whether the human rights abuses meted out by Kenyan police in the aftermath of terror attacks; the institutionalization of torture in Nigeria recently reported by Amnesty International; Israel’s recent punitive attack on Gaza; or the reflexive conflation of religious or ethnic identity with other characteristics by Hamas and the Israeli state alike.

Treating violence, injustice, and terror as problems of an almost metaphysical nature, beyond explanation, is an understandable reaction, but one which flies in the face of the approach necessary to combatting such ills.  It also seemed out of place in an academic setting that is supposed to permit people the freedom to think more critically, rigorously, and systematically about the language, categories, and claims we use, with an eye towards applying that rigour to the world in a way that those most immediately engaged in policy decision-making seem incapable or unwilling of doing. 

Tusan pushed the panelists to provide their views on the role of institutions in mitigating troublesome relationships between interests, individuals, and violence, but it was at this point that the panelists engaged in what I perceived as a sort of popular anti-intellectualism.  Both dismissed the need to think about fashioning institutions capable of handling our idealistic aspirations, and excoriated the “political correctness” which they saw as the more significant barrier to the effective defense of human rights.

But if Nafisi and Soyinka are disgusted by the “practice” of “political correctness”, I was even more disturbed by their careless use of the term, which fell into the trap of conflating understanding or explanation of atrocities with condoning such atrocities.  Such a caricature, which admittedly makes for an easy applause line, helps to ensure that we will not grapple with the root causes of the violence that plagues our world.

There was also a sense that there is no time for analysis when lives are at stake.  Again, this is understandable, but pays little heed to our experience in the past decades, when too many decisions have been taken under the pretext that it is necessary to do something, anything, so long as we do it now!  Such was the rationale for our decision to lash out at Iraq after 9/11, a war conducted ostensibly for humanitarian and security reasons, which killed more civilians in its first month than died on 9/11 and provided for the proliferation of terror across the Middle East.  Such was the rationale when President Obama argued last autumn for an armed intervention in Syria, without articulating a strategy or a goal…other than the need to act.  Most critically, he failed to make the betterment of the conditions of Syrians in the midst of the civil war a precondition for any action.

Acting without understanding the causes of and motivations for violence leaves the actors open to making bad choices, choices that could haunt them and do more harm than damage to the people on whose behalf they are ostensibly acting.

Such action—and this is a common critique of interventions and NGO work alike—often appears to be more about salving the affronted consciences of advocates than about doing good for victims of violence.  And that was the tone which I, unfortunately and I hope wrongly, took away from the panelists’ conversation: that it is more important to express our outrage in the most forceful terms possible than to think through the ramifications of intervention and devise sound mechanisms for ensuring that those interventions achieve something useful. 

Institutions, as Tusan’s questioning suggested, matter. 

Last week, Congress granted the President of the United States authority to wage a proxy war against the so-called Islamic State using Syrian levies.  This will take place alongside the air war the U.S. is already waging in Iraq.  And it will undoubtedly accompany some back-room deals with violent, autocratic regimes in Syria and elsewhere: regimes against which exactly one year ago we proposed to go to war.

The reason why our efforts to combat one violator of human rights requires us to ally with others is to a large degree because we have eschewed the creation of strong, rigorous, accountable institutions, preferring the comfortable belief that our moral compass—subject to wild swings toward torture, rendition, abduction, and extrajudicial murder—will take us inexorably on the right course.

The reason why every effort to combat violations of human rights on the world stage takes a piecemeal, truncated, and unsatisfactory form stems from our refusal to deal with the reality that we need institutions uncorrupted by our own complicity in so many rights violations to take the lead and set the course. 

The reason why, it seems to me, so man efforts at humanitarian intervention fail so dismally is not just for a lack of institutions, but because in the absence of such institutions, minimally swayed by narrow national, strategic interests, interventions are undertaken by and for the most powerful nations.  Those nations, egged on by commentators who spurn critical examination and historical understanding, believe that their own virtue and good intentions can transcend the experiences, histories, and interlocking relations behind so much conflict: relations which must be unpacked and understood before anyone can mount a successful defense of the beleaguered humanity according to the universal conditions towards which we believe all people aspire.   


  1. Your post on Peter Berkowitz is typical leftist post-colonialist drivel: A daresay you have little understanding of what's happening in contemporary education. Indeed, it's funny, the tone of condescension you take toward Berkowitz, since you're obviously a prototype of the very effete leftist elitist of whom he so effectively elucidates.

    1. A thousand thanks for your substantive and serious engagements with the points I made in that piece. You, sir, are a true credit to your ideology. I only wish my conversations with my "effete leftist elitist" colleagues were half as productive!